The Legend Of Tarzan swings into UK cinemas this week. And a month or two back, we had a chance to natter with its director – David Yates – and its producer – David Barron. Here’s how it all panned out…
Let’s start with something obvious: why Tarzan?
David Yates: Well, I was reading dozens and dozens of scripts, and trying to find something after [Harry] Potter that felt really fun, immersive, and had lots and lots of colours. Potter was a big arena experience, and in terms of storytelling it always had a funny bit, it always had a dramatic bit, always had something that was very emotional, always had something that was very beautifully thematic. It always took you to four or five different places, and as an experience that was always very enjoyable. And I read all these Hollywood scripts that they kept sending me, and none of them did that. They were all very one-note, it was one colour all the way through, whether they were blowing up cities or whatever, and then this script turned up and it said Tarzan on the front, and I said ‘I don’t think I’m going to read that, because I know what that is.’
Then someone who’d read it in my office said ‘I really think you ought to read this, because it’s not what you think.’ Reluctantly, I opened the page, and then I couldn’t stop turning the pages, and there was something about this human being who didn’t really know where home was. He didn’t know if it was in the jungle, or in his country estate in England, and he was stuck between the two, which I found really compelling. And there was something about the themes in the movie, that were beautiful, about reconnecting with the environment, reconnecting with animals, understanding animals, understanding that the environment was being threatened. This old-fashioned, iconic character was somehow connecting with present-day values that were very relevant and very important, and very ‘now.’ But more than anything, it was fun, it was moving, it was romantic, it was exciting, it had all the colours that the Potter movies, for me, would have. I thought ‘fuck, this is the first time I’ve read a script that I really want to go see this movie.’
David Baron: It’s also a very different Tarzan to all the other movies that we’ve seen in the past. For a start, it’s not the story of the foundling in the forest who gets taken back to England by the end, it’s quite the reverse. The character starts in England and goes back to Africa, which is a very refreshing point of view for Tarzan.
That’s something that I’m very curious about. Everything now is an origin story, even things that aren’t really origin stories. Was there pressure to push in? In the clip we saw, there was the beginning of that – was there pressure to make more of that?
DY: There is a bit of origin story in the movie, and there was no pressure from the studio, but when we showed it to the audience, the origins bit that was in there, they loved. When we put a bit more in, they loved it even more, and when we put a bit more in they loved it even more. But the origin story isn’t straightforward origin story, it refracts. There’s a foreground story, and that story of how Jane and Tarzan met, that refracts against the present time. It’s an element. Is it an origin story? Not really.
DB: There’s enough to explain, to people who don’t know the story, it gives them something to hang on to.
DY: It gives you context, and it’s kinda fun.
How did you come to cast Alexander Skarsgard?
DY: I was looking at all these actors. You either had a really good actor who had a terrible body, or you had someone who had a brilliant body but they couldn’t really act. Alex had this quality of having a really beautiful body and also being able to act really well. What I like about Alex is his length, his tallness, his verticality. In reinventing Tarzan for a modern audience, I wanted this grace. I didn’t want width, he needed to have a poise. He had to be an English lord, and he had to be this guy who could move through the jungle with real dexterity. So it was his verticality and his grace, although when you talk to him he’ll say he didn’t have that much grace running through some of our sets! He was actually my first choice, and I met a few other guys but I never wavered.
DB: Also, given that in our film, Tarzan is a man out of place, because he was brought up in the jungle where he didn’t belong, and he’s come back to England as an English aristocrat where he doesn’t really belong either, even though that’s his heritage. Alex was a Scandinavian who spent a long time in New York, so he’s someone who… Like a fish out of water.
DB: Absolutely. And somehow he brings that to his performance.
I’m curious about tone, because there is a moment where Alexander Skarsgard, a very good, award-winning actor, fights a monkey. It seems, from what I’ve seen, to work quite well, but how do you find the right balance so that something that is genuinely ludicrous can still work?
DY: The movie treads a line like that. It has moments of wit, and that gorilla is his brother, he grows up with that gorilla, and I wanted it to be thrilling but kind of cheekily fun at the same time. How do you find that? Well, it was on the page when you first read the script, and you go with it when you shoot it.
DB: Also, flashbacks really help in there. You’re actually contextualising, you actually establish that he really is one of them. So if I was to fight a huge, great gorilla it wouldn’t seem as ridiculous as it actually would be. With Alexander, because we’ve seen him in the flashbacks – there aren’t very many of them, but there’s enough to properly contextualise his background…
DY: It’s a fight with his brother. If it wasn’t his brother, the gorilla would naturally kill him.
It’s interesting that you right away mentioned the colours. I had the feeling that the identity was very strong. One sequence was very yellow, another was pretty blue, and it reminded me of how [Early 20th Century German director, FW] Murnau was playing with colour like that in Nosferatu. I wanted to know what you had in mind and how you worked with those colours.
DY: We are in the jungle quite a bit, and we didn’t want the audience’s eyes to get tired of just seeing green all the time. And also, identifying what was in the past, there are so many different ways of doing that that seem very trope-ish, or very familiar, so we wanted to use colour in a way that conveyed a certain feeling. There’s a palette that shifts throughout the movie, so it gives the eye enough change and shift, and it works hopefully in the right emotional way with what’s happening on screen. What scenes did you see this morning?
Throughout the movie, there is a very careful shift. It was always intended to support the drama, or the emotion of the scene.
When he was fighting the monkey, what was he doing really?
DY: That’s his brother, and he’s trying to negotiate a way through…
DB: You mean physically?
Was it a puppet, or was there a stand-in? How did you do that?
DY: We had a stunt stand-in who would be the gorilla.
DB: In a big suit, for the physical interaction, so Alex’s arms weren’t here, they were sort of here.
DY: Then Alex would fight with him, and then when he couldn’t fight with him because he had to throw a punch, he’d literally be fighting with thin air.
DB: Or a ball on the end of a stick. We didn’t do any motion capture, the apes are completely CG.
There are so many different, very high quality, digital creatures out there. Other than the lack of mo-cap, how do you set yourselves apart, and more than that, how do you stand up to the competition?
DY: You just get the best animators, which we did. And it’s partly about the characters within our story, and you deliver story. Our animals, we made them as photorealistically as we could.
DB: Even though they don’t exist, because they’re giant apes.
They were pretty bloody scary.
DB: They don’t actually exist, they’re drawn from something that was a mixture of a chimpanzee and a gorilla, but they’re bigger. You wouldn’t find anything quite as big as Tarzan’s brother in the wild.
DY: You don’t really look at what other people are doing, you kind of just concentrate on your own story and your own world.
DB: In Planet Of The Apes, they’re pretty much just chimpanzees that ride horses and stand on their back legs.
DY: You look critically at some other work, and you go ‘they did that bit really well, but that bit wasn’t as good.’ You’re aware of it, and you try and learn from other people’s mistakes. And you’ll do something that you think is really good, a stand-out piece of animation, and you do something else and think ‘I’m not sure we nailed that.’
What happens when you’re at that stage, when you’re looking at it just shy of delivery and you just want another day, another week?
DB: Then we try and find another day and another week. You can’t give up.
DY: We were running out of time last week, weren’t we?
DB: Slightly. But now, none of the animation I wish we’d done differently.
There’s a scene in the trailer where Margot has to scream and she says ‘oh, like a damsel.’ I gather that Jane is quite modern.
DY: She’s feisty. She’s quite modern and feisty, she’s quite punchy.
Tell us the story about how she punched Alex.
DY: They were doing a love-making scene, and I just said ‘could you slap Alex?’ They were getting quite intense – Margot’s very committed, and she really gets into a zone. So I said to her ‘Margot, I know this sounds crazy, but could you punch him?’ Alex was on top of Margot, and she had her arm up, so she just made a fist and whacked him. Poor old Alex went ‘Ow!’
Where did she punch him, in the face?
DB: No, the arm.
This strategy of finding your own voice, how does it relate to the previous Tarzan movies and what kind of man he is? We know him as being young, and you have to define what kind of man he is becoming.
DY: He’s a man stuck between two worlds. He’s afraid of going back to where he grew up, he’s afraid primarily because he wants to protect Jane, there’s a score that he has to figure out how to settle with an extraordinary character called Chief Mbonga. He actually killed Chief Mbonga’s son at one point in his past, so he’s reticent to go back to Africa. He’s a deeply troubled human being, who is trying to figure everything out, and he has the expectation from his father and his family of staying in England, of keeping the family home, being a proper English lord. He’s quite conflicted. But he finds real peace, and completeness, when he goes back to Africa. He has two families in Africa; he has the Manjani, the gorillas, who found him as a baby, and he has the Kuba tribe, who are this very peaceful group of agrarian tribespeople who saved him and brought him into their community.
DB: Which is where he met Jane.
DY: The Kuba are great, and they bring them into his bigger family. Ultimately, it’s a celebration of family. The thing about Christoph Waltz’s character is, he doesn’t know anything about community, or love, or what it is to feel interconnected, he just wants to take and build for the ambitions of his king. Whereas Tarzan and Jane have this huge family in Africa.
DB: Also Tarzan has, although he didn’t grow up with it, this history of his aristocratic lineage, and Christoph Waltz comes from very humble origins, and thinks that by serving his king well he will be promoted in the annals of history and celebrated as a character who saved his country.
Where does Samuel L. Jackson come into it?
DY: He’s a real character. Sam’s character is based on this extraordinary man, George Washington Williams, a preacher-lawyer-soldier, and one of the first people to draw people’s attention to what was happening in the Congo. There’s a level of politics in the movie, with a very small P, we didn’t want to dwell on it too much but it does give context for what’s happening in our story. So George Washington Williams, played by Sam, wants to try and get to the bottom of what King Leopold is up to in the Congo, which is basically enslaving a good portion of the population. So Sam persuades John, Tarzan, to take him back to the Congo, where they can work together to uncover what Leopold’s up to.
DB: Which was genocide on a massive scale.
DY: It was the first great genocide. Actually, that’s a really heavy part of it, and if one percent of the audience gets intrigued by that, they can learn about the first great genocide.
Will we be hearing the famous Tarzan yell?
DB: Of course you will!
DY: We were mixing it this morning.
Does Alex do it himself?
DY: There’s an element of Alex, it’s made up of many elements.
DB: Alex is an element of it.
On a related but unrelated note, what’s it like to be talking about a film while you’re still finishing the film?
DY: The film is basically finished. We’re doing final visual effects, final mixing, it’s almost done-done. What is weird is letting something go after you’ve lived with it for two years or more. That’s actually hard, but in this case it’s quite relieving.
DB: Before we started shooting, Warner’s put a pin in summer 2016, because we wouldn’t have been ready for last summer, and Thanksgiving through to Christmas would have been the next logical release of a film this size, but it’s Star Wars territory. No matter how confident you are about your film, nobody in their right mind would put it up against Star Wars. The next best time was Summer 2016, but it does mean we’ve had a lot of time to fiddle and noodle.
DY: Too much time.
DB: We’re getting ready now to hand it over. We saw it in 3-D for the first time today, they’ve still got some work to do on that.
Could we go back to your digital monkeys? One of the things that stood out was how you composed the fight scene. Some of the shots are… you cut away instead of showing… are you still limited in shot choices, or is it now a case of it makes more creative sense to cut away from impacts between digital creatures and physical people?
DY: That was deliberate. Seeing it out of context, seeing the earlier scenes where you establish that relationship, probably makes it a little easier to judge, I think. Basically, Akut doesn’t want to kill Tarzan, he just wants to frighten him. When he pounds the ground, he’s doing that to exert his authority, and to give Tarzan a bit of a bruising. Because he would actually kill him, because he’s such a big creature.
DB: We could have achieved it convincingly.
DY: We can achieve pretty much anything now.
DB: If you go about it the right way, and spend the right amount of time doing it, you can achieve anything.
I have a question about a line we heard this morning, when Christoph Waltz said, when Jane refuses to scream, he says ‘you’re Jane and he’s Tarzan, so eventually he’ll come for you anyway.’ Is it a joke to remind us that we know where we stand? We know Tarzan…
DY: I love that mythic part. Not mythic, I love that old-fashioned part of the story.
DB: You can’t say ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ anymore, not in the context of our film…
DY: There’s something beautiful. One of the reasons I liked the script, ultimately he saves her in the foreground story but in the background story she saves him. So it’s really about two human beings who save each other, in the totality of their lives. I find that really romantic and very moving, that two people can save each other, in very different ways. I think that’s beautiful, potentially, as an idea.
David Yates, David Barron, thank you very much.
The Legend Of Tarzan is in UK cinemas from July 6th.
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